Interview: Dan Elliott of Pointed Man Band

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I believe it’s important to also have music that engages not just the children but also the different generations that help to raise the children we love.

Pointed Man Band is a Portland-based band led by Dan Elliott. Earlier this year (2015), Pointed Man Band released its second album, Flight of the Blue Whale. Like its predecessor, the 2013 debut Swordfish Tango,  Flight of the Blue Whale presents listeners with a rich tapestry of sound featuring an eclectic blend of styles that collectively illustrate the album’s storyline – a tale featuring a red fox and a Taupier (mole-catcher) who set out on a journey ultimately freeing a baleen whale from its curse. Along the way they meet mole pirates, drift with Swifts, and hear the beckoning call of a siren’s song (sung by Kay Elliott).

Flight of the Blue Whale was an instant hit in our household. It’s eccentric and there is a meticulousness in the overall composition that captured my attention, in addition to the variety of instrumentation. When I initially spoke with Elliott I was intrigued to learn that he is a self-taught musician, though as we spoke more, it began to make sense. Elliott’s approach to making music is notably innovative. Waltzes serve as segues, buoyantly carrying the listener along while nontraditional objects are used to emphasize critical pieces of the story, i.e. drinking glasses sonically illustrating weightlessness when the baleen whale takes flight.

I am pleased to share more about Elliott and Pointed Man Band with you. In our interview below, Elliott shares thoughts about the production of the album, his love of Waltzes and how his son is his biggest inspiration.

KCG: What inspired you to start Pointed Man Band?

DE: Pointed Man Band started when I was staying home a few days a week with my son when he was younger. Our play times, our jokes and some silly songs would always pop up and I would use his nap times to record these sketches and eventually an album. He slept through it all!

KCG: How did you decide on the name “Pointed Man Band?”

DE: The name came from an album that I always admired, The Point! by Harry Nilsson and a character in the story “The Pointed Man.” This album was one that I consider to be the “outline” of what a children’s album could be in both content and lyrics. I chose to go with “Band” because I had hopes for the project to develop into just that. Live performances are often four to seven band members and we’ve even had a small middle school choir for one show!

KCG: When did you start playing music?

DE: I started playing trumpet in the 5th grade. I remember being fascinated by the idea of reading music and having that sense of empowerment with being able to initially become part of a group who could see shapes and turn that into sound.

I had my first recording experiences with music in High School. I had always wanted to write my own songs and I had acquired a four track my Sophomore or Junior year. This kind of changed my life. It allowed me to listen to cassettes of The Beatles and others in reverse. It also introduced me to the idea of layering tracks, something that I am still guilty of today. So, it was pretty close to how it is now… A recording device, a pair of headphones, some instruments and an idea, usually put together at home.

KCG: You composed and arranged all the music on FOTBW. As a self-taught musician, what is your approach to writing/producing music?

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DE: My wife and I talk about this a lot. As a self-taught musician, I’ve been told that I find it easy to think outside “the classical progression box.” I’m not even sure where I am “supposed” to be thinking according to broad music guidelines. I just play what I hear in the moment regardless of how a trained musician might perceive it. This is also part of the challenging aspects. Writing musical passages out in notation is difficult for me, but the musicians I am working with can often take it down for themselves. It is a goal for me to learn how to read and write music, and I plan on bolstering my skills in that area.


KCG: What changed from your debut, Swordfish Tango, to Flight of the Blue Whale (“FOTBW”)?

DE: It’s hard not to answer “Everything!” but having accessibility to a recording studio was a completely different type of environment for me. I found myself reaching out to musicians that I highly respect. Also, it was largely the patience and guidance of Kevin Drake, who recorded the album, that kept me in a calm and positive state of mind. It can be frustrating to have an idea and not execute it in the first few tries.

KCG: Why did you go with a narrative for FOTBW?

DE: Well, quite simply, I just really wanted to tell a story from beginning to end. I wanted to create an album that could potentially translate into a stage performance as well. When I started thinking about creating a new album, I only had a song about a Red Fox, Moles going on parade and a demo for a waltz that I titled “Flight of the Blue Whale.” As I began to write other tunes, I allowed them to become more or less what they wanted to be and then I set to work on sculpting a story line that captured the songs as a whole.

KCG: One of my favorite parts of the album is when you simulate weightlessness as the baleen whale takes flight. What was your approach to creating this significant piece of the story?

DE: Space. The build up to the whale taking flight was trying to create the thought of how much speed and resistance it would take for a 50 ton creature to fly. Flight, as we think of rockets and planes, is loud. So, why wouldn’t it be for a whale? But what next? Space, clarity and beauty right? I have a soft spot for tuned glassware, it sounds amazing.

KCG: Classical styles of music, such as Tangos and Waltzes, are included in both of your albums. What do you like about these styles?

DE: Waltzes hold a very special place in my heart. I’ve always been thrilled by songs in irregular time signatures and despite how common the waltz used to be, nowadays songs in 3/4 are not in the majority. There’s something about the circuital nature of the “One, Two, Three” that just works. Waltzes also served as such a great way to enhance the theatrical components of a Taupier trapping moles, a Siren’s song luring pirates, and ultimately the great moments of the Blue Whale. For me, waltzes captured the intensity and delicacy of these moments perfectly.

Personally, I always try to remember to take an idea and see if it doesn’t fit more comfortably into a different state than the original, which as of late has been trying it as a waltz.

KCG: You incorporate different languages into your albums. Are you fluent in any foreign languages?

DE: I studied Italian and lived in Italy for a short stint. But, I do love the sound of French as well as Portuguese and I love a lot of music that has come from countries that speak these languages. For these past two records, I use words from French mainly because they feel the most like words that a wandering young mind might find intriguing. Also, there are just some words that sum up a feeling or a title that will never sound as elegant in English.

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KCG: The album’s artwork is stunning! How did you meet Brooke Weeber?

DE: The artwork is truly a special component to the whole product. I was introduced to Brooke Weeber and her artwork through Kevin’s wedding invitations. Seeing as how he was making this project come to life, it seemed all too fitting to have her talents be a part of it. I reached out, we met for coffee and she made it happen. She’s kind of magic.

KCG: Do you have a favorite part or parts of the album?

DE: It’s really about the tiny details. There are so many hidden moments within the album, it’s hard to choose. If you listen very carefully to the end of “Valse de Taupier,” you hear the hammers of the piano closing back in after the big smash. I also really love the paper sweeping the ground at end of “Forget the Sea.” But those are only a couple of moments of the many that we buried in the project for our own listening enjoyment.

KCG: What creative people are you inspired by?

DE: First and foremost, my son. Experiencing life through the eyes of a small child is beautiful, silly and imaginative.

It’s hard to pare down my direct influences, but right in this moment I look to musicians and community members like Anais Mitchell, 3 Leg Torso, William Basinski, Apollo Sunshine, The Barr Brothers and many classical influences.

KCG: You channel Tom Waits in your songs. Is that somewhat of an alter ego for you?

DE: He is certainly a huge influence, as can be almost anyone on a given day. But I think what I love the most about Tom Waits and what I seek to draw from his music, is how he glides between the duskier corners of the minor keys and somehow can maintain that feel even in the prettiest and most straightforward major key tune. There’s that and the fact that I modeled all of the backing “mole” voices as if he wanted in on the action. So, to answer the question, I would say the Pointed Man Band, in and of itself, is my alter ego just as that of being a dad is. The music and that reality came hand in hand and it still strikes me on a daily basis that I am a completely different person then I used to define myself and now my music as.

KCG: The independent kids (kindie) music genre is expanding into a place that appeals to all ages. Both of your albums meet that criteria, pushing the boundaries of what is simply categorized as “music for kids.” What, in your opinion, is kids music?

DE: That’s kind of a loaded question. Kids music, honestly, is any music that a child can connect with. Whether it’s jazz, classical, hip hop, rock, you name it. But if the question becomes “what do I feel is acceptable for kids to be listening to”? Then I would just try to eliminate music that promotes negativity and hateful messages. We all have such varied musical tastes and luckily there is so much diversity out there that we can allow our children to decide what they like or don’t.

To expand upon this question again, in a different way, I believe it’s important to also have music that engages not just the children but also the different generations that help to raise the children we love.

What’s next?

Stay tuned.

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